Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Dangerous Ideas of Cognitive Scientists

Last year, The Edge asked 120 scientists what they believed to be true but could not prove. I covered the answers of the cognitive scientists and people from related disciplines here, even though they were mostly uninteresting. So, I thought it only appropriate that I cover the answers to this year's question, which may be even sillier than last year's (it was suggested by Steven Pinker, I should note, though I will not comment on whether that has anything to do with its silliness). The question for 2006 is: What is your dangerous idea? I know, that probably seems pretty vague. Fortunately, they provided a longer version:
The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?
Just as last year, many cognitive folk sent in their answers, and I'll try to get to all of them here. Like last year, I may get a bit snarky. You've been warned. Since there are so many, I should probably get started. This is going to be long, so take a deep breath.

V.S. Ramachandran:
First there was the Copernican system dethroning the earth as the center of the cosmos.

Second was the Darwinian revolution; the idea that far from being the climax of "intelligent design" we are merely neotonous apes that happen to be slightly cleverer than our cousins.

Third, the Freudian view that even though you claim to be "in charge" of your life, your behavior is in fact governed by a cauldron of drives and motives of which you are largely unconscious.

And fourth, the discovery of DNA and the genetic code with its implication (to quote James Watson) that "There are only molecules. Everything else is sociology".

To this list we can now add the fifth, the "neuroscience revolution" and its corollary pointed out by Crick — the "astonishing hypothesis" — that even our loftiest thoughts and aspirations are mere byproducts of neural activity. We are nothing but a pack of neurons.
I have to admit that I think Ramachandran (whom you may remember from posts on the cognitive science of art) is right, in the sense that this idea, which we know is true, is going to receive a lot of resistance from the general public and religious figures when it becomes clear that it is central to so much of neuroscience and psychology. I also think it's dangerous because it's going to be used by some to make unwarranted claims about human nature. For example...

David Buss (aka Rudyard Kipling):

When most people think of torturers, stalkers, robbers, rapists, and murderers, they imagine crazed drooling monsters with maniacal Charles Manson-like eyes. The calm normal-looking image starring back at you from the bathroom mirror reflects a truer representation. The dangerous idea is that all of us contain within our large brains adaptations whose functions are to commit despicable atrocities against our fellow humans — atrocities most would label evil.
This is followed by some stuff that really isn't worth copying and pasting, after which Buss ends with
On reflection, the dangerous idea may not be that murder historically has been advantageous to the reproductive success of killers; nor that we all house homicidal circuits within our brains; nor even that all of us are lineal descendants of ancestors who murdered. The danger comes from people who refuse to recognize that there are dark sides of human nature that cannot be wished away by attributing them to the modern ills of culture, poverty, pathology, or exposure to media violence. The danger comes from failing to gaze into the mirror and come to grips the capacity for evil in all of us.
Once again, I have to agree with this answerer. His idea is dangerous, but not for the reasons that he says it is. When someone who is seen as an authority on psychology, and the role of evolution in modern human psychology in particular, says that because people have killed for a long time (at least since Genghis Khan), often for selfish reasons, it's clear that murder is hard-wired into our brain, but offers up no evidence to support this, because he has none, and is unlikely to obtain any, that's dangerous.

Paul Bloom:
I am interested in the... position that mental life has a purely material basis. The dangerous idea, then, is that Cartesian dualism is false. If what you mean by "soul" is something immaterial and immortal, something that exists independently of the brain, then souls do not exist. This is old hat for most psychologists and philosophers, the stuff of introductory lectures. But the rejection of the immaterial soul is unintuitive, unpopular, and, for some people, downright repulsive.

So Bloom, Ramachandran, and I all agree that this is a dangerous idea. Bloom even discusses the dangerousness of this idea relative to evolution, writing:
The rejection of souls is more dangerous than the idea that kept us so occupied in 2005 — evolution by natural selection. The battle between evolution and creationism is important for many reasons; it is where science takes a stand against superstition. But, like the origin of the universe, the origin of the species is an issue of great intellectual importance and little practical relevance. If everyone were to become a sophisticated Darwinian, our everyday lives would change very little. In contrast, the widespread rejection of the soul would have profound moral and legal consequences. It would also require people to rethink what happens when they die, and give up the idea (held by about 90% of Americans) that their souls will survive the death of their bodies and ascend to heaven. It is hard to get more dangerous than that.
Scott Atran:

In case you're wondering just why that's a dangerous idea, Atran gives us a good reason:
Ever since Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, scientists and secularly-minded scholars have been predicting the ultimate demise of religion. But, if anything, religious fervor is increasing across the world, including in the United States, the world's most economically powerful and scientifically advanced society. An underlying reason is that science treats humans and intentions only as incidental elements in the universe, whereas for religion they are central. Science is not particularly well-suited to deal with people's existential anxieties, including death, deception, sudden catastrophe, loneliness or longing for love or justice. It cannot tell us what we ought to do, only what we can do. Religion thrives because it addresses people's deepest emotional yearnings and society's foundational moral needs, perhaps even more so in complex and mobile societies that are increasingly divorced from nurturing family settings and long familiar environments.

From a scientific perspective of the overall structure and design of the physical universe:

1. Human beings are accidental and incidental products of the material development of the universe, almost wholly irrelevant and readily ignored in any general description of its functioning.

Beyond Earth, there is no intelligence — however alien or like our own — that is watching out for us or cares. We are alone.

2. Human intelligence and reason, which searches for the hidden traps and causes in our surroundings, evolved and will always remain leashed to our animal passions — in the struggle for survival, the quest for love, the yearning for social standing and belonging.

This intelligence does not easily suffer loneliness, anymore than it abides the looming prospect of death, whether individual or collective.

Religion is the hope that science is missing (something more in the endeavor to miss nothing).
Sure, Atran doesn't mention Ramachandran and Bloom's "dangerous idea," but it is just one way in which science impedes on territory ordinarily reserved for religion, and inevitably, religion will fight back, as it always does.

Stephen Kosslyn:

This one gets a bit weird, and I'm not really sure what to say about it, so I'll just let you read it for yourselves at the link above. Here's how he starts out:
Here's an idea that many academics may find unsettling and dangerous: God exists. And here's another idea that many religious people may find unsettling and dangerous: God is not supernatural, but rather part of the natural order. Simply stating these ideas in the same breath invites them to scrape against each other, and sparks begin to fly. To avoid such conflict, Stephen Jay Gould famously argued that we should separate religion and science, treating them as distinct "magisteria." But science leads many of us to try to understand all that we encounter with a single, grand and glorious overarching framework. In this spirit, let me try to suggest one way in which the idea of a "supreme being" can fit into a scientific worldview.

I offer the following not to advocate the ideas, but rather simply to illustrate one (certainly not the only) way that the concept of God can be approached scientifically.
From there, he offers a pretty lengthy illustration. Again, I don't know what to make of it, but if you have something to say about it, feel free to do so in comments.

Daniel C. Dennett:
Dennett begins by telling us that he's saving his most dangerous ideas for a time when we can handle them. Thank you, Dan. After that, he gives us a merely "unsettling" idea:
The human population is still growing, but at nowhere near the rate that the population of memes is growing. There is competition for the limited space in human brains for memes, and something has to give. Thanks to our incessant and often technically brilliant efforts, and our apparently insatiable appetites for novelty, we have created an explosively growing flood of information, in all media, on all topics, in every genre. Now either (1) we will drown in this flood of information, or (2) we won't drown in it. Both alternatives are deeply disturbing. What do I mean by drowning? I mean that we will become psychologically overwhelmed, unable to cope, victimized by the glut and unable to make life-enhancing decisions in the face of an unimaginable surfeit. (I recall the brilliant scene in the film of Evelyn Waugh's dark comedy The Loved One in which embalmer Mr. Joyboy's gluttonous mother is found sprawled on the kitchen floor, helplessly wallowing in the bounty that has spilled from a capsized refrigerator.) We will be lost in the maze, preyed upon by whatever clever forces find ways of pumping money–or simply further memetic replications–out of our situation. (In The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells sees that it might well be our germs, not our high-tech military contraptions, that subdue our alien invaders. Similarly, might our own minds succumb not to the devious manipulations of evil brainwashers and propagandists, but to nothing more than a swarm of irresistible ditties, Noφs nibbled to death by slogans and one-liners?)

If we don't drown, how will we cope? If we somehow learn to swim in the rising tide of the infosphere, that will entail that we–that is to say, our grandchildren and their grandchildren–become very very different from our recent ancestors. What will "we" be like? (Some years ago, Doug Hofstadter wrote a wonderful piece, " In 2093, Just Who Will Be We?" in which he imagines robots being created to have "human" values, robots that gradually take over the social roles of our biological descendants, who become stupider and less concerned with the things we value. If we could secure the welfare of just one of these groups, our children or our brainchildren, which group would we care about the most, with which group would we identify?)
This is actually something I've wondered about myself (I'm sure Dennett doesn't think he's the first to think of this). In an age when more and more information is thrown at us on a daily basis, how do we process enough of it to make relatively rational decisions? I'm even afraid that it is becoming more common that information overload is used against us, by marketers, politicians, and so on, to make it more difficult for us to make decisions.

Even in science, this is a growing problem, as we learn so much that scientists themselves are forced to become increasingly specialized in order to keep up with the flow of information. We're forced to lose the forest for the trees, and inevitably scientists will come up with theories that look really good for their particular tree, but which, when looked at from a step or two back, clearly do not fit with the neighboring trees. I know this is already a problem in cognitive science, where modeleres often come up with models focused on one or two particular processes, but have no way of integrating those models with all of the related processes. Thus it's never clear just how useful the models actually are.

Rodney Brooks:
The thing that I worry about most that may or may not be true is that perhaps the spontaneous transformation from non-living matter to living matter is extraordinarily unlikely. We know that it has happened once. But what if we gain lots of evidence over the next few decades that it happens very rarely.
I can't really figure out how this idea is dangerous. He goes on to say that it could mean we are alone in this galaxy, or even in this universe, but really, isn't that what humans have believed throughout most of their history? At least, haven't humans generally believed that except for the divine beings on Mount Olympus or wherever, humans are alone? So why is this dangerous? Because it would make alien invasion movies more unbelievable?

Alison Gopnik:

This is by far the best answer among the cognitive science people, so I'm going to reproduce it in its entirety.
It may not be good to encourage scientists to articulate dangerous ideas.

Good scientists, almost by definition, tend towards the contrarian and ornery, and nothing gives them more pleasure than holding to an unconventional idea in the face of opposition. Indeed, orneriness and contrarianism are something of currency for science — nobody wants to have an idea that everyone else has too. Scientists are always constructing a straw man "establishment" opponent who they can then fearlessly demolish. If you combine that with defying the conventional wisdom of non-scientists you have a recipe for a very distinctive kind of scientific smugness and self-righteousness. We scientists see this contrarian habit grinning back at us in a particularly hideous and distorted form when global warming opponents or intelligent design advocates invoke the unpopularity of their ideas as evidence that they should be accepted, or at least discussed.

The problem is exacerbated for public intellectuals. For the media too, would far rather hear about contrarian or unpopular or morally dubious or "controversial" ideas than ones that are congruent with everyday morality and wisdom. No one writes a newspaper article about a study that shows that girls are just as good at some task as boys, or that children are influenced by their parents.

It is certainly true that there is no reason that scientifically valid results should have morally comforting consequences — but there is no reason why they shouldn't either. Unpopularity or shock is no more a sign of truth than popularity is. More to the point, when scientists do have ideas that are potentially morally dangerous they should approach those ideas with hesitancy and humility. And they should do so in full recognition of the great human tragedy that, as Isiah Berlin pointed out, there can be genuinely conflicting goods and that humans are often in situations of conflict for which there is no simple or obvious answer.

Truth and morality may indeed in some cases be competing values, but that is a tragedy, not a cause for self-congratulation. Humility and empathy come less easily to most scientists, most certainly including me, than pride and self-confidence, but perhaps for that very reason they are the virtues we should pursue.

This is, of course, itself a dangerous idea. Orneriness and contrarianism are in fact, genuine scientific virtues, too. And in the current profoundly anti-scientific political climate it is terribly dangerous to do anything that might give comfort to the enemies of science. But I think the peril to science actually doesn't lie in timidity or self-censorship. It is much more likely to lie in a cacophony of "controversy".
All I can say is, right on! So many of the scientific ideas that are seen as "dangerous" really aren't. Evolution is the obvious one. Unless you believe in a relatively recent, literalist interpretation of one book of the Bible, this really isn't a dangerous idea at all. Then there are the ideas that really are dangerous (see, e.g., Buss' answer above, and anything else he's ever written or said), because there is no evidence for them, but they're offered up anyway. A cynic would believe that people like Buss discuss these ideas because they know that the media will publicize them. I think you all know that I'm a cynic. That's probably why I like Gopnik's answer so much.

Simon Baron-Cohen
:
So here's the dangerous new idea. What would it be like if our political chambers were based on the principles of empathizing? It is dangerous because it would mean a revolution in how we choose our politicians, how our political chambers govern, and how our politicians think and behave. We have never given such an alternative political process a chance. Might it be better and safer than what we currently have? Since empathy is about keeping in mind the thoughts and feelings of other people (not just your own), and being sensitive to another person's thoughts and feelings (not just riding rough-shod over them), it is clearly incompatible with notions of "doing battle with the opposition" and "defeating the opposition" in order to win and hold on to power.
In other words, under Baron-Cohen's view, what would it be like if women designed our political system? Of course, I'm not quite sure what it means to base an entire political system on the principles of empathizing, any more than I'm sure how one could explain our current political system using the principles of "systematizing," i.e., what men's brains do. But then again, the systematizing-empathizing dichotomy, even with the tiny bit of evidence that might be used to argue for it, is clearly an abstraction that oversimplifies a wide range of observed differences between individuals, so it would be asking too much of it to have it explain current or future political systems, whether they're designed by men, women, or just people in general.

Steven Pinker:
Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments.
I don't really have the stomach to copy and paste any more of Pinker's answer, because he basically uses it as a chance to say what he wants to say about the Summers affair and gender differences in mathematical ability, a topic on which completelyare comletely wrong, because he's not familiar with the actual research. But I agree with him that it is a dangerous idea. It's hard to argue that it's not, given how heated the public debates on these issues are. Of course, part of the debate is about whether the ideas are dangerous because they're true, or are dangerous because they're not true, but "experts" like Pinker (note that Pinker has never done any actual empirical research on gender and math ability, or even in remotely related fields like, say, math ability in general, or cognitive development, or anything outside of psycholinguistics, and thus is hardly an expert) champion them, while the ideas themselves do little more than reinforce stereotyopes?

Richard E. Nisbett:
Do you know why you hired your most recent employee over the runner-up? Do you know why you bought your last pair of pajamas? Do you know what makes you happy and unhappy?

Don't be too sure. The most important thing that social psychologists have discovered over the last 50 years is that people are very unreliable informants about why they behaved as they did, made the judgment they did, or liked or disliked something. In short, we don't know nearly as much about what goes on in our heads as we think. In fact, for a shocking range of things, we don't know the answer to "Why did I?" any better than an observer.
I've got to say that I agree with this one, as well. The fact that the vast majority of our thoughts, decision processes, motivations, etc. are unconscious, and unavailable for introspection, not to mention mostly automated, is scary for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it makes us feel like strangers to ourselves. And it is a fact.

Susan Blackmore:
We humans can, and do, make up our own purposes, but ultimately the universe has none. All the wonderfully complex, and beautifully designed things we see around us were built by the same purposeless process — evolution by natural selection. This includes everything from microbes and elephants to skyscrapers and computers, and even our own inner selves.
Susan Blackmore, ladies and gentleman, the world's leading evolutionary existentialist.

Marc D. Hauser:
The theory I propose is that human mental life is based on a few simple, abstract, yet expressively powerful rules or computations together with an instructive learning mechanism that prunes the range of possible systems of language, music, mathematics, art, and morality to a limited set of culturally expressed variants. In many ways, this view isn't new or radical. It stems from thinking about the seemingly constrained ways in which relatively open ended or generative systems of expression create both universal structure and limited variation.

Unfortunately, what appears to be a rather modest proposal on some counts, is dangerous on another. It is dangerous to those who abhor biologically grounded theories on the often misinterpreted perspective that biology determines our fate, derails free will, and erases the soul. But a look at systems other than the human mind makes it transparently clear that the argument from biological endowment does not entail any of these false inferences.
He goes on from there. But wait a minute, Marc! That's basically the same answer you gave to the question last year. If you're going to give the same empirically unsupported and either logically unsound or trivially true (depending on what, exactly, he means) answer every year, The Edge is going to have to find someone else to take your place on the panel... I hope.

Dan Sperber:

Sperber, who is always interesting, writes that the idea that cutlure is "natural," that it has evolved through natural processes, is a dangerous idea. His answer is very long, and so is this post, so I'll just let you go read it. If you're interested in Sperber's work, or the study of culture in general, you'll probably enjoy it.

So there you have it, the dangerous ideas of the cognitive scientists. There are some clear themes. For example, materialistic approaches to the mind are dangerous, and so are Evolutionary Psychologists, but for entirely different reasons. Despite the fact that this year's question was really dumb, I think the answers are much better than they were last year, overall. I think Gopnik's answer is clearly the best among the cognitive scientists, in part because it puts The Edge and its silly question on blast, but mostly because she's dead on. Some of the people above wouldn't even have careers if it weren't for the media and public's love for "dangerous" ideas. The love of the "dangerous" has become so prevalent that "sexy" ideas with little or no empirical support can get published in some cognitive science and social psychology journals. In addition, that love for "dangerous" science has also led the media and certain uneducated groups of people to treat ideas such as evolution as dangerous, even when they aren't. That means that good scientists, and good scientific ideas, have to struggle to win public relations debates against fear mongerering idiots in order to make sure that science wins out in the classroom and elsewhere. And that's just sad.

91 comments:

Wittgenstein's Language Games said...

Keep the good stuff coming. This is my favorite blog - by far!

Fido the Yak said...

RE: Kosslyn. In a previous comment I fretted about the reification of "system." Kosslyn's argument illustrates why that might be a problem. As Kosslyn admits, there's really no empirical basis for deciding that an "ultimate superset" of emergent properties are equivalent to God, so Kosslyn's idea would appear not to belong to science, nor does it seem much like religion, I reckon, meaning that whether or not it's true won't affect the way most people do science or religion.

In the broad view, the antagonism between science and religion is the product of a particular cultural history, so we might anticipate that these two institutions will eventually fade away, cease to be diametrically opposed, or be radically transformed in such a way that future generations would be able to things that are neither science nor religion as we understand them today, but combine elements of both. Spiritual empiricism, materialist eschatology, and so forth. It's not difficult to concieve, and if we look back over developments in Western culture since the Inquisition, without casting judgement on whether this or that intellectual movement meets our standards of what is truly scientific or truly religious, we see numerous examples of cross-pollination and, arguably, more than a few signs of radical transformation.

A for instance. Was Thomas Malthus a scientist who got it wrong, or a prophet whose predictions yet have force? My gut reaction is to dismiss Malthusianism as "pseudoscience," however, when I look at the phenomenon as a whole, its etiology, symptomology and diffusion, it seems that the responsibility for keeping the flame alive rests squarely on the shoulders of the scientific community--have to cut it short. Thanks for the roundup.

Chris said...

Wittgenstein, thanks for the compliment.

Fido, thanks for commenting on Kosslyn. I was hoping someone would, because I was at a loss. And I keep meaning to put your blog on the bloglist, too, so you commenting reminded me to do so.

Clark Goble said...

It sounds like Kosslyn's ideas are basically Process Philosophy ala Whitehead.

I think though that once one buys into the notion of radical emergence (I don't) then just as a nervous system radically emerges a mind, and a crowd something else, then the set of all entities naturally emerges some other entity. While one can debate what such an entity is, I don't see how calling it God is problematic, so long as one doesn't tie it too closely to any particular theistic system.

Of course I do find radical emergence highly problematic and don't think there is any scientific evidence for it. Arguments typically acknowledge the hard problem of consciousness, assert the mind is tied to the brain, and then say radical emergence is the only solution. Certainly the phenomena of mob mentality doesn't require radical emergence, despite what he asserts.

I think radical emergence is sort of the 21st century equivalence of the aether. Something introduced purely to make their theories work. Something has to be the medium light vibrates in so it is the aether, even if there isn't any evidence for it that is scientific. Something has to allow brains to become minds, therefore there is radical emergence.

another orphan said...

To follow up on Bloom's point, I cite an excerpt from the first page of Patricia Churchland's textbook Brain-Wise, which I posted on last month:

"The weight of evidence now implies that it is the brain, rather than some nonphysical stuff, that feels, thinks, and decides. That means there is no soul to fall in love. We do fall in love, certainly, and passion is as real as it ever was. The difference is that now we understand those important feelings to be events happening in the physical brain. It means that there is no soul to spend its postmortem eternity blissful in Heaven or miserable in Hell."

One could see how that might be taken as a challenge to some religious points of view.

John Paul said...

Nice blog. The dangerous ideas are lately nearly always about evolution. Evolutionary psychologists. Bell curves. For that matter the ID versus EVOLUTION thing going on in various states. What is it about evolution that worries so many people?

For that matter, why do some many people (scientists included) view evolution and religion as mutually exclusive? A car will have a ICHTHUS, then another has a fish with legs that says Darwin, then another has big fig that says truth eating the Darwin fish. I do not get it. Evolution does not rule out God. They taught about evolution in Catholic school when I was a kid.

Science and religion have trouble mixing, but they will always be closely entwined. That is what makes Stephen Kosslyn's piece interesting. And Bloom's. This same piece was in the APA (or APS) monthly magazine. Once at a conference I attended an early Catholic Mass at a downtown Cathedral (which I always like to do when travelling to a different city). I saw one of the other professors in our department there. He was as surprised as I was to see another professor. Most scientists and professors are not thought of as the Church going type. But that is a false asummption.

I do not think about cognitive psychology during Mass, nor to I think about Catholicism in my lab.

BTW, I run a Philosophy and Psychology Research Group here. I'm going to point everyone in the direction of your blog.

Clark Goble said...

John Paul, one should point out that it is the evolutionists who tend to see it as dangerous. I've long thought that religious people would care about evolution far less if particular scientists didn't go beyond the science and start suggesting how it invalidates all religion. Say what you will about ID, but I think the greatest danger to successful acceptance of evolution by the population are people like Dawkins.

Dylab said...

I wish I knew of any research on the causes of creationism. Personally I'm somewhat doubtful of your view, Clark, although I don't have any facts to back it up.

Personally I see more PR on the evolution side arguing that Christianity and Evolution are compatible than I do people like Dawkins. The play, Inherrit the Wind, for example had somewhat of a pro Christianity message at the end. Would you disagree that most of the people in the anti-id group tend to argue for something similar to Gould's NOMA? How many Creationists have actually ever heard of Richard Dawkins?

I think many people don't accept evolution because it is very counterintuitive. If I believed in God and did not have a very good understanding of science than creationism would be much more appealing to me than explaing the intricacies of animal life as a result of natural selection. Furthermore the idea that explaning nature is destructive to faith in god isn't a particularly novel idea.

Has Dawkins really said anything that inflamatory against religion using evolution?

Either way, I agree that the conflict between evolution and Christianity is exagerated. I'm more interested in what Chris posted about. It isn't clear to me how Christians would reconcile a belief in a soul and a scientific explanation of the mind.

Tim said...

Clark, do you really believe that a true modern scientific world view (including evolution as the explanation for where humans come from, and neuroscience's indication that the brain is all there is) leaves room for religion?

It seems to me that the only way it leaves room for religion is if you consider the two purposefully seperate, and believe in religious doctrine (like the existence of the soul) while knowing it isn't true. Thats not something most people want to be left with, I'm fairly certain. So it _does_ seem to threaten religion -- at least in so far a s most religious doctrine makes scientific claims about the way the world is.

Lizzie said...

Dylab, You make many good, interesting points, like this one:
"I think many people don't accept evolution because it is very counterintuitive" I agree.
Also, from Dylab:
Has Dawkins really said anything that inflamatory against religion using evolution?
Yes.

Lizzie said...

Chris, You've written lots here, and I've barely been able to read it all. I just want to respond to the Sasha Baren-Cohen "dangerous idea". No, it's not dangerous. But, even though it's written in a quite flat and uninspiring language, I think it's actually profound. I think that the ideal of empathy is one of the very best, and kind of got overlooked because you brought up the (superflous) dichotomy of which gender relates to what more.

Lizzie said...

sorry, superfluous.

Chris said...

First let me say that Dawkins has said plenty of inflammatory things that would offend the religious, and particularly Christians. I agree with the point that PZ Myres frequently makes, concerning how people react to offensive comments about atheists vs how they react to offensive comments about Christians, but I don't particularly like either of them, unless they're philosophically or scientifically sound. Dawkins' comments on religious people in general usually seem to be born of little more than anger and frustration.

Second, I think Clark's right. While I think that physicalism in the study of the mind, whether it's reductionist or not (and in neuroscience it tends to be reductionist, while in cognitive psychology it tends to be non-reductionist)is actually a bigger problem for theistic metaphysics than evolution (which I don't think is a problem for it at all!), I don't think it's an insurmountable one.

We really don't understand the metaphysics of mind anymore than we did 50 years ago, and we don't understand it a whole lot better than we did 500 years ago. On the scientific side, there's so much that we don't know about brain functioning, either below the level of individual neurons or at the level of systems of neurons, that it's hard to say where the reduction will end (if we're reductionists), much less that there's no room for a concept of "soul." On the philosophical end, physicalism is still problematic from many angles, and philosophers continue to debate it vigorously even when they agree with each other about the status of the available neuroscientific data. I just don't think you can say that anything we know about brains rules out the possibility of an extra-physical soul. I don't think it bodes well for that metaphysics that we can explain, or see the route to explaining, so much about the mind without reference to a soul, but it doesn't kill theism either.

Clark Goble said...

Chris, for the record I always cringe at some of the amazingly hateful speech by some Christians toward atheists. And there are just outright idiots like Pat Robertson who seems to see anyone who disagrees with him in anyway as somehow a tool of the devil, ready to be struck down by God. His comment today about Sharon beats even his comments about Chavez or others.

I can fully understand why atheists react vigorously towards theists, must as I understand theists reacting towards some atheists. One would hope that there could be a kind of detente.

My perhaps unfair judgment is that people like Robertson are uneducated buffons. Dawkins and many scientists aren't. I guess I just expect better from them precisely because they think about issues, entertain more ideas, and are supposedly liberal in their thinking. (Not meaning liberal in its political sense) So when I see them acting little better than folks like Robertson (as I think far too many of the responses at the Edge illustrate) it's rather disheartening. It makes me realize that I'm perhaps too optimistic and naive about what education can achieve.

BTW - I truly do think that Dawkins is doing more than just reacting out of some anger. What bothers me most is that far too many of these people end up conflating their personal ideas with the science and end up confusing issues for many people. While I'm fully in the camp of the philosophers of science that sees the boundaries of science as far less clear than some think, at the same time I don't think that means we should ignore trying for some ideal of science. I think most of these folks would agree in principle but somehow lose that principle when religion becomes involved. ID definitely isn't science, but then neither are a lot of the anti-religion comments one hears from far too many scientists.

rf said...

I've never really understood what Dawkins is trying to do with his anti-religious comments. In all the interviews and articles I read about him, he basically says, "religion is untrue, and the world would be better without it, so let's get rid of it." OK, fine--though I don't think it's at all obvious that religion has a negative net effect. But as the original meme guy, Dawkins of all people should know that getting rid of religion is a different kind of effort than getting rid of, say, a brick wall. It's hard to destroy an idea by attacking it "head on"--often, that will just leave its subscribers defensive, making them more resolute in their belief. Dawkins' popular books are billed as presenting the case for evolution in a universe without God, but he never asks the religious to check out his books with an open mind. You can't expect nonbelievers to be enticed by his public vitriol; if it's calculated to attract anyone, it's the sort that already agree with him, as if religion would suddenly evaporate if the atheistic community drummed up enough mass hate. Since religion is an idea, though, this choir-preaching can only have the opposite result.

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Ugh, meant "believers" when I said ". . . can't expect nonbelievers . . ." up there.

Brandon said...

On physicalism about the mind and religion, it's worth noting that in Islam reductionist physicalism about the mind has always been a fairly common view. When we are talking about 'religion' in vague terms its worth remembering that it's a label covering vastly different things. And even in cases where we are dealing with religious claims about immaterialism, we have to be careful, because words like 'physical' and 'material' have changed meanings several times since people started saying that the mind or the soul is nonphysical or immaterial. Too many people pretend to have a refutation on these matters when they haven't even bothered to show that there's more than a purely verbal conflict.

Chris said...

Brandon, it's probably true that scientists and philosophers alike tend to be equiovcal when they speak of physicalism in contrast to religion. In most cases, though, I think it's pretty clear that they're speaking of the dualistic tradition that has dominated both western philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology for at least a couple millenia. And I think it's certainly the case that both reductive and nonreductive physicalism in contemporary philosophy and cog sci are in direct opposition to the traditional dualistic metaphysics in which the soul is separate from the material world, immortal, and so on. And since much of that dualism is inherent in western (Christian, at least) common sense ideas about the soul, it is also in opposition to those ideas.

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Chris, that's precisely my point: there is no metaphysical position on the mind that has dominated for millenia. Indeed, western philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology on the subject are both primarily marked with a long conflict between broadly Platonic views of the mind (which are usually dualistic in a way that conflicts with all forms of physicalism) and Aristotelian views of the mind (which don't clearly conflict with all forms of physicalism). Even Descartes is not as dualistic as often thought, since his dualism consists in the claims that (1) 'mind' and 'body' are logically separable concepts; (2) our certainty about our minds is of a higher and more fundamental order than that about our bodies, so that we are more certain that we, as minds exist, than we are that bodies exist; and (3) mind and body are intimately united so that modification of the brain generally involves modification of the mind and vice versa. As some people have pointed out, it isn't clear that even this is inconsistent with physicalism. Given how common Aristotelian views are in Christian theology and philosophy, and given that Aristotelian views are virtually all more physicalist-friendly than Cartesian views, one cannot assume that a given physicalism has refuted every traditional position on this subject.

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Brandon, I'm obviously not an expert on the history of philosophy, but 1.) reductive physicalism seems to me to be opposed to even Aristotelian views of mind, and at least Ramachandran is clearly a reductive physicalist. I don't know about Bloom. As a psychologist, he may not be (neuroscientists tend to be the reductionists).

I'm also not certain that you could rectify a physicalist account in which all aspects of the mind can be shown to have a physical cause are consistent with Descartes, either. I am certain, however, that any form of physicalism in which the mind is caused by the physical contrasts with what is definitely now, and as far as I can tell has historically been, the lay concept of the non-corporeal soul. A soul that is not only subject to the physical, but identical with it, is, if nothing else, mortal.

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I'm not convinced that even reductive physicalism is inconsistent with Aristotelian hylemorphism. Aristotelian accounts are, except for rare cases that have weird notions of form; so the only question is whether an Aristotelian can be a reductionist, and I see no reason why he couldn't. In any given case, if asked to identify what real thing is exemplifying a given case of imagining, the Aristotelian will identify exactly the same thing that the reductive physicalist will. Aristotelians are not identity theorists of mind-body relation; but they are constitution theorists of mind-body relation, and as far as I can see the constitution relation is all one needs to allow reduction. Perhaps there is some highly precise notion of reduction that blocks this; but very few reductive physicalists have a very precise notion of reduction at all, much less one that can make all identity relations fall on the reductionist side but all constitution relations on the nonreductionist side.

We need to make sure that we're careful about terms: the thesis that all aspects of mind have a physical cause is not strong enough to eliminate dualism: causation is consistent with at least some forms of real dualism. Identity as we usually understand it is very different; when X is strictly identical to Y we are ruling out that either is the cause of the other in any sense. The strongest relation we can admit and still talk about causation is constitution: in that sense X causes Y in the same sense that the angles of a triangle cause the sides to have a certain proportion to each other, or that the material of a glass statuette causes it to be fragile.

If we're talking identity in the strictest sense, I'd agree with your statement; but our concept of mind is fairly clearly not conceptually identical to our concept of the human body, or our concept of any part of it. If we're talking about some looser sort of identity, I think it would very much depend on what sort of identity is meant. All one needs for immortality of the soul is constitution, which is itself a loose identity relation. If the human body in whole or in part materially constitutes the human mind, that's sufficient for a thesis of immortality.

I do agree that all these are different from the lay concept; but the lay concept seems to me to be fairly obviously incoherent, a mishmash rather than anything unified.

Brandon said...

Aristotelian accounts are, except for rare cases that have weird notions of form

That should be 'Aristotelian accounts are physicalist'. Sorry about that.

Chris said...

yeah, I know that Aristotelian accounts are physcialist, at least for the most part. I also think of Bergson and his physicalism, which is non-reductionist and not incompatible with the idea of a "soul." And I realize that physicalist accounts of mind aren't inconsistent with a "soul," either. I think Clark made that point earlier, and I tried to make it. But I do think the reductionism in neuroscience (as in the Ramachandran answer), which is pretty close to the eliminative materialism of Paul Churchland, however metaphysically naive it may be, is inconsistent with any dualistic notion of the soul that I can think of, including Descartes's, and with the non-dualistic physicalism of someone like Bergson.

But philosophers aren't really the object of the "dangerousness" in these ideas. Instead, they are dangerous because they challenge "common sense" beliefs about the soul, and I think pretty much any form of physicalism does that.

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